Unboxing “Unboxing TV”

Just back from Cambridge, where I attended Unboxing TV, one of the most satisfying “conference experiences” I’ve ever had. So, right off the top, yay Jonathan Gray and Joshua Green for putting this together. Let’s do it again.

In the wake of MIT5, Jon and Josh cooked up the idea for a small, one-stream conference of TV Studies scholars where the focus would not be on the conference paper as the kind of finished idea polished for presentation, but on the much more engaging process of interactive thought and discussion. They were also inspired by the design of last year’s Flow conference in Austin, which similarly put the “discussions in the corridor” front-and-center. The difference was in scale. Flow was not large, but certainly not small. There were 30 invited participants to Unboxing TV, present at every panel, in the same space, for a day and a half. This produced the effect of an undistracted collective experience, an ongoing evolution of discussion throughout the weekend.

The larger conferences in our field (e.g., SCMS, at around 800 participants) can be exciting but exhausting in all their numerous, too-brief meet-ups and scurrying between panels. By contrast, as one person put it, Unboxing TV felt like the best grad seminar ever, where everyone has done the reading, and everyone has something interesting to say.

You can do the reading as well, here, where you’ll find PDFs of the “provocations” – the short thought pieces that each participant contributed. Collectively, they indicate how we’re working to understand and contextualize both the rapid changes happening in and around television (and media and culture more broadly) and the continuities of so much unfinished lines of inquiry. Rather than break down each panel, as I did for MIT5, and will ideally do for similar conferences, I thought I’d do a synthesis here instead, giving a general sense of what our collective intelligence generated.


All throughout the weekend, and embedded in the design of the event, were questions of definition. What is “television”? What is “television studies”? What is “public service”? What is “fandom”? What is “newness”? What is “creative labor”? What is “community”? What emerged from these discussions was not only the sense that none of these categories (and several others) can be pinned down precisely, but that none of them should be pinned down. Instead, in the best post-structuralist tradition, we collectively (if often not consciously, and not with some contention) argued for the value of indeterminacy. That is, the strategic mobility of concepts, terms, and discourses.

This applied most radically to the questions of television and Television Studies itself. After more than thirty years of scratching at the doors of various fields (mostly the one marked “Film Studies”) for legitimacy, the field is arguably better off pursuing an open disciplinarity. By this I don’t mean “interdisciplinarity” (which many critiqued) or even post-disciplinarity, but rather a kind of not-disciplinarity, whereby the usual parameters of an academic field (theories, methods, objects of study, etc.) could never quite be fixed. Indeed, aside from a general lack of quantitative approaches (and even there, there were exceptions), the breadth of scholarship produced by the participants is staggering. A PowerPoint slide of all the participants’ book covers reminded us of that from the very beginning.

The benefits and risks of cohering into “a field” were openly discussed, and my wheels are still turning over the possibilities, which are especially intriguing given our steady ascendancy into SCMS over the past several years, and the impending job security of most of the people in the room.


In a similar manner, the weekend revealed plenty of gaps in methods, concepts, terms, “languages” (I’m guilty of that metaphor, I suppose), technologies, objects of study, texts, and (arguably most importantly) histories of every kind. If Television Studies is indeterminate, than “inquiry” is what keeps it afloat, always moving forward, always questioning established categories and practices.

Yes, the academic life is about inquiry at a very basic level. But this field never stops inquiring, never rests on assumptions, never takes much for granted. It might be a sign of a seminal moment in Television Studies, or maybe only a seminal moment in my academic life, that the energy and intensity of discussions in conference rooms and grad seminars of long ago (2005, 2003, 1999, 1994, 1991,…) was matched and superceded by our collective wisdom in Cambridge.

I now find myself wanting to listen in on Julie D’Acci’s feminism seminar in 1991, or John Fiske’s Media Theory seminar in 1993, or my dissertation writing group in 1996, or the birth of the SCMS TV Studies group in 1999, or the collective intellectual geek-out over reality TV at MIT3 in 2003. To see how the act of “inquiry” propelled discussions towards where we are now, and to see those past moments under the (often harsh) glare of the present.

Inquiry is what we do; it’s what we’ve always done and always will do.


The last major category to emerge from Unboxing TV was community. I understand community, coming out of this, as operating in three distinct ways (again, indeterminacy, remember?).

First, there was a lot of talk about building communities across not only other academic disciplines, but other key publics (regulators, activists, fans, creative workers, “the industry,” etc.). Lines of inquiry often led in this direction, which in turn led “out” of a sense of a cohesive field, and toward a more diffuse array of interests and politics. Every panel tied back into the concept of community in this regard, whether of Asian Americans, program buyers, journalists, striking TV writers, or Mexican factory workers (to name a few).

Second, there was great support (especially from Jon and Josh, as event organizers) for maintaining and expanding online and offline communities within our “field” (as such). The ongoing “good fight” at places like Flow, MediaCommons, LiveJournal, Henry’s AcaFan Debate, and the blogosphere more broadly were discussed as examples of how we need to effectively utilize new interfaces and technologies to support the idea of “academic community.” Oddly, the TV Studies group at SCMS didn’t come up once, despite the fact that five past or present steering committee members were there, and that one invitee (Michele Hilmes, who unfortunately couldn’t make the trip) now serves on the SCMS Executive Committee.

And a final, important note about community. At the first panel, Jon made the observation that the participants were going to be colleagues and collaborators in our “field,” or whatever it is we do, for the next thirty-odd years. I thought at that moment not only of those in the room, but of the many others, some in “adjacent” fields like Film Studies, Popular Music Studies, and Communication Studies more broadly, in my generational cohort. We’re the “class of the millennium,” I suppose, all gaining PhDs in the last ten years and many now scampering over the hedge to tenure (Amanda Lotz counted seven colleagues in the field going up this year alone). So community also means this particular community. These people, gathered in this room.

In this regard, there’s not only a shared politics and purpose; there’s love. I’ve known many of the people at Unboxing TV for several years, and a few of them for many years, dating back to my early grad school days (I first met Henry Jenkins at the first Console-ing Passions, at Iowa City in 1992). Even those I’ve only met recently, I feel a close affinity with. We’ve shared knowledge, gossip, baby pictures, book chapters, hopes, fears, drink recipes, job tips, political rants, hugs, works-in-progress, fannish crushes, mentor stories, laughter, restaurant reviews, conference panels, YouTube videos, paper calls, tears, and complaints about department meetings for years. We all feel isolated at our home institutions. We all feel like “home” in distant hotel meeting rooms and bars, and blogs and e-mail discussions. We all do, otherwise we wouldn’t have come to Cambridge.

I don’t want to critique or theorize this community, but hold onto it. Aside from family and friends, these are the most important long-term relationships we’ll ever have. These people, and the many others they’ve led me to, are ultimately the fuel that keeps my inquiry moving, and my indeterminacy undaunted.

May we never stop unboxing television.


9 Responses to “Unboxing “Unboxing TV””

  1. Jason Mittell Says:

    Great emotional weather report of the conference. Makes me melancholy for having been called away!

  2. kbusse Says:

    Derek, thanks for the detailed and reflective account. I was jealously waiting for everyone to come back to hear reports, and yours has really set the stage!

    I’m not really in your field nor am I in academia proper, and yet I do feel a kinship like the one you’re describing, both in fandom and, more recently, acafandom : ) Because you’re totally right about important long term relationships, and even with most of the contacts occurring in virtual spaces, they are still more intense and important contacts for me than many of the everyday ones I have here in “meatspace.”

    Likewise, I so hear you about the non finishedness of thoughts and the energy that can create. I’ve been writing a post on collaboration this week, and one of the things I most enjoy on LJ, for example, is the ability to “think aloud,” to throw out an unformed idea and think through it with and against others. We have much to little of that, and I love the fact that Unboxing TV allowed that (and yes, in order to so that, you need to have a limited number and hand select…kind of like the difference between a 15 person seminar and the 600 people strong lecture…not much constructive debate going on in the latter…)

    Anyway, thanks for the great review!!!

  3. link roundup « ephemeral traces Says:

    […] Unboxing TV Sunday and Monday is the less public, invite-only symposium Unboxing TV. No podcast there, and probably everyone is too involved for liveblogging, but I’m counting on Jason, Jonathan, Derek, and maybe Louisa to blog about it down the line. [I’ll update as they come in: Louisa’s From Bouncers to Unboxing; Jason’s Understanding vidding; Derek’s Unboxing “Unboxing TV”] […]

  4. Elana Levine Says:

    Thanks for this, Derek. It sums up my experience nicely, as well. And your talk of community made me quite teary. I was struck by Jon’s comment about all of us spending time with each other for the next 30 years, as well. He’s so right, and in some ways these ARE the people with whom I feel the most intellectual kinship, as well as other kinds, so it is well worth taking the time out for the kinds of conversations that Unboxing provided the space to have. I’d like to see the boundaries of who is included in that community remain flexible, as there were surely many TV scholars not in attendance, but the small numbers were also crucial to the kind of experience the workshop offered.

  5. Jonathan Gray Says:

    Elana, nice to hear I wasn’t the only one getting a bit teary reading this. And as you say, the real challenge is how to make such things like this happen more often without becoming cliquey — I’m still haunted by a file on my computer with a list of about 30 or 40 other people we could’ve invited. I’m sure any given person in the room could double that list in size.

    Meanwhile, Derek, an excellent summation. I wish I could say lots of intelligent things in response to your intelligent comments, but at the moment, I’ll stick to the emotive reaction to your emotive ones — thanks, and i echo the sentiment.

  6. receiptbill » Community Media: Selected Clippings - 11/21/07 Says:

    […] here instead, giving a general sense of what our collective intelligence generated.   —> https://dkompare.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/unboxing-unboxing-tv/ […]

  7. Lindsay Hogan Garrison Says:

    Thanks for this – we aspiring academicians and the future generation of tv scholars are certainly inspired by the work of you all in “establishing” the field (while still valuing the idea of openness and mobility), and can only hope to be as close, passionate, and “undaunted” as those of you who have come before us.

  8. Lyle Burwell Says:

    I’m still waiting for a discussion of the community that is outside the box and wants in. When we think of viewers as TV participants the discussion starts at reality TV and ends at game shows. In truth, North America has been moving closer to the rest of the world in terms of viewer-centric programming ever since European imports Survivor and Big Brother arrived on these shores back in the ’90s. Today, viewer participation encompasses not just reality TV and game shows (both of which continue to increase their share of broadcast hours), but talents competitions, fashion makeovers, cooking, home renovation, interior design, talk shows, judge shows, relationships, lifestyles…
    Because these are discrete genres, the common sine qua non of viewer participation hasn’t been identified as the evolutionary meme that it is. I hope academia will turn its attention to this soon.

    I run VPTV – Viewer Participation TeleVision – a directory of North American English language viewer participation programming at http://vptv.blogspot.com. A glance down the show list on the first page is all one needs to understand the extent to which television is now as much about what viewers can do as it is about what they will watch.

    Thanks for letting me lurk here.

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